A garden (ārāma or uyyāna) is an area of ground in which plants are cultivated. Horticulture was highly developed in ancient India and secular works like the Kāma Sūtra and the Vṛkṣāyuveda give detailed instructions on how to lay out a garden, what flowering plants to select, the order in which to plant them and how to maintain them. The Kāma Sūtra says of the attentive wife: 'She should carefully prepare the ground and plant aromatic herbs, vegetables, clumps of sugar cane, etc. She should plant myrobalan, jasmine and other flowering trees and shrubs in rows. In the middle of the garden a well, pond or reservoir should be dug. Beggars and Buddhist and Jain monks should be kept out.' The two types of gardens most often mentioned in the Tipiṭaka are; (1) orchards (phalārāma), usually of mango trees, situated on the edges of villages and (2) pleasure gardens (pupphārāma) owned by royalty or the rich, situated outside cities and used on holidays and weekends for retreats, picnics and parties (Vin.III,49). Apart from flowering shrubs, trees and vines, the most important elements of these pleasure gardens were a pavilion (maṇḍapa), a lotus pond (pokkharaṇī), a stone bench (silāpatta) and a swing (dolā) suspended from the branch of a large tree. There might be a place where peacocks and squirrels were fed and fish in the ponds might be trained to come to be fed at the sound of a drum (Ja.II,227). Most of these gardens were enclosed with a wall and maintained by a gardener (ārāmapāla).
The earliest Buddhist monasteries evolved from orchards and pleasure gardens that had been donated to the Buddha. The most famous of these were the Bamboo Grove and Jīvaka's Mango Grove at Rājagaha and Prince Jeta's Park at Sāvatthi. This first one was described as being 'not to near or too far (from the city), suitable for coming and going, accessible to people whenever they want, not crowded by day or noisy at night, quiet, secluded from people, good for sitting without being disturbed and conducive to spiritual practice' (Vin.I,39). Apart from the fact that gardens offer a degree of solitude and silence, what is it that makes them particularly 'conducive to spiritual practice (paṭisallānasāruppa)?'
The ancient Buddhists understood that a person's immediate environment can have an effect on their mind. For example, 'a lodging with a view where gardens, groves and ponds, pleasant prospects, panoramas of villages, towns and countryside and the blue haze of mountains' can soothe agitation and worry (Vis.110). Like forests, gardens seem to have a natural ability to quieten the mind. Research has shown that color can likewise have an impact on one's mental state. Blue and green in particular, have a calming effect and of course green is the predominant color in a garden. In the process of photosynthesis plants exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Bushes and trees make gardens an oxygen-rich environment, more so than urban areas or enclosed indoor places like houses where there are no plants. Breathing in more oxygen helps make the mind alert and sharp. Although an experienced practitioner can meditate anywhere, there is no doubt that some environments are more conducive to meditation than others. Gardens would be an example of this and this may explain why the first Buddhists favored them as sites for their monasteries.
Some of the best of Japan's many outstanding gardens are located in monasteries, Ryoan-ji in Kyoto being the most famous of these. The Norbalinga in Lhasa, Tibet, and the now ruined Kaluḍiya Pokuṇa at Mihintale in Sri Lanka are two other beautiful gardens meant to enhance meditation. The monastery established by the reformist Thai monk Buddhadasa is set in a sylvan environment called Suan Mokkh, The Garden of Liberation.
- Buddhism A to Z. Ven. Dhammika, 2007.